Watch and Ward Society
|Motto||Manu forti ("With a strong hand")|
|Region served||New England|
The New England Watch and Ward Society (founded as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice) was a Boston, Massachusetts organization involved in the censorship of books and the performing arts from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. After the 1920s, its emphasis changed to combating the spread of gambling. In 1957 the organization's name was changed to the New England Citizens Crime Commission, and in 1967 it became the Massachusetts Council on Crime and Correction. In 1975 it was merged with another organization to form Community Resources for Justice, a group that promotes prison reform and rights for ex-convicts.
At the height of the society's power in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Boston Public Library kept books that had been deemed objectionable in a locked room, publishers and booksellers held back publications for fear of the organization's influence with prosecutors and judges, and plays were performed in a bowdlerized "Boston Version". The society's activities contributed to the popularization of the phrase "Banned in Boston", which became a target of parody and a marketing slogan.
Founding and naming
The New England Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded in 1878 by a meeting of Boston residents following a speech given by Anthony Comstock. Comstock had founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1873 as a vehicle for a crusade against numerous perceived ills of society, and sought to establish chapters of the organization in other cities. The New England Society was to be the first such chapter. The meeting, attended by more than 400 men (women were denied admittance due to the subject matter), elected a committee of eight men to run the organization. Its first agent was Henry Chase, hired in 1882; he served the society for more than 20 years, and the president of the society for many of its early years was Frederick Baylies Allen, an Episcopal minister. The society's membership was open to anyone making contributions of $5 or more; according to historian Paul Boyer, the membership was "almost a roll call of [Boston] Brahmin aristocracy". The society held its first annual meeting in Boston's Park Street Church in 1879. In 1891, it was renamed the Watch and Ward Society after an old volunteer police force, adopting the mission to "watch and ward off evildoers." It was headquartered on School Street, circa 1890s-1900s.
At the height of the society's power, the Boston Public Library kept books that had been deemed objectionable in a locked room, publishers and booksellers held back publications for fear of the organization's influence with prosecutors and judges, and plays were performed in a bowdlerized "Boston Version". Elsewhere, the phrase, "Banned in Boston," became a target of parody and a marketing slogan.
In 1882, the society played a role in instigating obscenity charges against Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. In 1903 they went to court to prevent booksellers from advertising Bocaccio's The Decameron and Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, but lost the case. In 1907, they successfully backed obscenity charges against Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks.
In 1926, the society challenged a Herbert Asbury story called Hatrack, published in H.L. Mencken's American Mercury. In Boston, with police, press, and a large crowd in attendance, Mencken sold a copy of the magazine to society secretary J. Frank Chase. Mencken was arrested. In the ensuing trial, the magazine was found not to be obscene, and Mencken was acquitted. Mencken proceeded to successfully sue the Watch and Ward Society for illegal restraint of trade. Chase died later that year, and the society's influence began to decline.
In 1928, the society blacklisted Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point and Voltaire's Candide. In 1929, it went after Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front on the grounds of offensive language. That same year, in a decisive case, it failed to ban Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. In 1933 the society moved its headquarters to no.41 Mount Vernon Street. In 1934, the society suppressed John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra. In 1935, it banned Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour. In one of its final acts of censorship, in 1950, the society took aim at Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre.
End of the organization
Dwight Spaulding Strong (1906–2004) became director of the society in 1948, and redirected its focus, choosing to emphasize action on gambling and other vices, the rehabilitation of criminals, and the study of social issues that lead to crime. In 1957, the organization's name was changed to the New England Citizens Crime Commission, and in 1975 it was merged with the Massachusetts Correctional Association to form the Crime and Justice Foundation, which later became Community Resources for Justice, a group that promotes prison reform and rights for ex-convicts. The remnants of the Watch and Ward Society's endowments were propagated through all of these organizations.
- Miller, p. 7
- Miller, pp. 3-6
- Miller, p. 6
- Boyer, p. 7
- Miller, p. 11
- Directory of the Charitable and Beneficent Organizations of Boston. Old Corner Bookstore. 1891.
- New England Watch and Ward Society (1903), Annual Report, Boston
- Watch and Ward Secretary Dead in Boston, Telegraph (Nashua, NH), November 4, 1926 – via Google News
- "Photograph of 41 Mt. Vernon Street, April 6, 1947". Retrieved July 2014 – via Bostonian Society.
- Miller, p. 172
- "Community Resources For Justice organizational history chart". Community Resources for Justice. Retrieved 2010-11-16.
- Miller, p. 178
- Boyer, Paul (2002). Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-17584-9.
- Miller, Neil (2010). Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil. Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-5112-2.
- "H.L. Mencken Arrested in Boston"
- New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, Annual Report, Boston
- New England Watch and Ward Society, Annual Report, Boston
- Digitized records of the society, through 1957 (hosted by Harvard University)
- Death of Jason Franklin Chase (subscription required)
- Dwight Strong, Watch and Ward Society leader, dies
- New England Society for the Suppression of Vice and Watch and Ward Society annual reports from 1878-1951 are available at the Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections Department